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Ben there, done that for July 6, 2022

Consider blank canvases

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I have a confession to make: I love whiteboards. Even as a child, I was completely transfixed by the infinite possibilities they presented. I even remember asking my parents if I could cover all the walls of my room with whiteboards when I was around 11. Not surprisingly the answer was “no,” but my fixation has carried on to this day. However, in all these years, I hadn’t asked the question of where whiteboards came from until recently.

In the 1950s, while working in a dark room, the photographer Martin Heit discovered that he could write on film negatives with a marker and then wipe it away. In a flash of inspiration, he realized that he could use something like this to take notes while conversing with to clients on the phone. An idea was birthed and Heit developed a board system that utilized the same concept that consumers could have next to their phones. After filing a patent, he prepared to unveil his new invention at the Chicago Merchandise Mart. Tragically, the showcase where the new whiteboards were displayed burned down the night before the planned unveiling. Martin was quite discouraged by this and subsequently sold his patent to a small company that would eventually become “Dri-Mark.”

Whiteboards became available starting in the early 1960s; however, early versions required a wet cloth to erase. Today we refer to this method as “wet erase.” Requiring a wet cloth on hand proved to be annoying. This inconvenience would eventually be solved by another inventor, Jerry Woolf, who worked for Techform Laboratories. He patented the first-ever marker made exclusively for whiteboards. Prior to this, people just used common magic markers on whiteboards. The new marker used a special non-toxic ink formula that wouldn’t absorb into glossy surfaces. Because of this, the ink could be wiped away cleanly once it dried without the need for moisture. The new “dry erase” markers, as they came to be known, also didn’t leave stubborn ink stains that would slowly dirty the shiny whiteboard. Solving this final problem allowed the whiteboard’s popularity to take off starting in the 1980s.

The whiteboard first gained popularity in the corporate world, seen as an icon of business creativity. The image of a bunch of executives in a board room brainstorming in front of a whiteboard covered in hastily scribbled marks became a fixture in our collective cultural lexicon. However, one more event would elevate the whiteboard to unprecedented levels of ubiquity.

Starting in the late 1980s and increasing into the 1990s, more and more students in schools were beginning to suffer from environmental allergies. While the underlying cause of this shift is still unclear, one idea that gained popularity blamed chalk dust. Blackboards had been in systematic use in education and academia from the beginning of the 19th century. Suspicion arose that the dust from blackboards was causing a concerning rise in allergy-suffering students. We now know that the dust can be irritating to the respiratory system, like any other fine air-borne particulate; however, chalk dust was not to blame for pupils’ allergy issues. The whiteboard emerged as the white knight solution to this perceived problem. Forward thinking and concerned school districts began to systematically replace blackboards with white ones. This trend continued until now, where most students will never experience the sound of chalk moving across the board. 

How amazing to remember all that has transpired to showcase the humble whiteboard: understated, simple, and to a degree, unremarkable. Yet, imagine all the world...creative inspiration, or problems solved by people utilizing a whiteboard. There is something so poetic about this dichotomy, something to consider when you see a whiteboard. The next time you lay eyes on one, you can appreciate how these blank canvases became an integral part of our modern world.

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